28 May 2017
Few people outside northern Sydney’s Pittwater region will probably have heard of Alex McTaggart. A popular local mayor, he was in the New South Wales Parliament for fifteen months – a period of time almost short enough for you to fail to even notice that he was there. He entered after a by-election in late 2005, but lost his seat in early 2007.
The circumstances behind that 2005 by-election were dramatic. McTaggart ran as an Independent in that by-election, for the seat of Pittwater, and won it from the Liberal Party, in whose hands it’d been since its creation. The by-election followed the sudden downfall of Liberal leader John Brogden. Elected to Pittwater in 1996, Brogden gained the Liberal leadership in 2002, lost a general election in 2003, and was thought likely to win the next election, in 2007, until revelations broke of him behaving badly while in a drunken state at a function. He was in a bad mental condition after resigning as Liberal leader in August 2005, and he left Parliament soon after.
Pittwater voters believed that the Liberals themselves were behind Brogden’s downfall, as many Liberal MPs and officials disagreed with his aims for the future. Because his seat was really safe for the Liberals, the Labor Party didn’t contest the by-election. Some people believe that Labor’s absence made victory possibly for McTaggart, because Labor voters in Pittwater would’ve been looking elsewhere, and the Liberals would’ve lost much support in the area because of Brogden’s departure. Being a popular mayor, McTaggart would’ve been a known quantity, and he ended up winning the by-election.
But in March 2007. when the next general election came, McTaggart’s career ended, with the Liberals regaining his seat. As Labor ran here, like in every other seat, lots of voters supporting McTaggart in 2005 returned to Labor, so his vote dropped off. And the Liberal candidate beating McTaggart was Rob Stokes, who became a minister in 2011.
The rise and fall of McTaggart jolted my memory earlier this year, when I heard about the sudden departures of Mike Baird and Jillian Skinner. There was widespread surprise when Baird resigned as State Premier in January, although the exit of Skinner, the long-serving Health Minister who’d been tipped to lose her job after many years in it, surprised people less. Both Baird and Skinner held safe seats in northern Sydney, which Labor had no chance of winning. Therefore, I tipped no surprises in the by-elections to come in Manly and North Shore, the former seats of Baird and Skinner respectively, while Labor, unsurprisingly, didn’t contest either by-election.
Over time, I’ve seen the major parties lose by-elections to unconventional candidates, when their traditional rivals haven’t run, in seats considered safe – at least from their traditional rivals. It’s like voters in those seats simply support or oppose the major parties holding them. Apart from when the Liberals lost Pittwater to McTaggart after Labor opted against running, I remember when Labor lost a by-election for a safe seat to the Greens in the Wollongong area outside Sydney, which the Liberals skipped.
I’ve even seen the major parties lose those safe seats in general elections as well as by-elections, and with their traditional rivals running. A by-election for Orange last year serves as a good example – this seat was safe for the Nationals, but at the by-election it fell to a candidate standing on behalf of shooters and fishers and farmers, even though Labor also ran. And I remember how Tony Windsor won a safe seat from the Nationals at a Federal election in 2001, with the Labor vote collapsing in that seat. Clearly Windsor won over voters who’d previously supported Labor more out of disliking the Nationals than actually liking Labor, as well as those who’d supported the Nationals only because they didn’t like Labor. These circumstances have at times seen Independents like Ted Mack and Cathy McGowan elected to Parliament.
Going back to the seats of Manly and North Shore, when by-elections came for them last month, the Liberals won both. There were big swings against the Liberals, but not big enough for them to lose, and they didn’t take long to claim victory. For the record, Labor held one of its seats in another by-election at the same time.
I’d expected those by-election results in Manly and North Shore to lead to nothing, and they did. As Labor skipped them, Independents unsurprisingly came second after preferences. But even if any of them had won, I’d now be tipping any such winner to lose at the next general election, due in 2019. The rise of fall of McTaggart, who lost his seat in a general election less than two years after winning it in a by-election, is typical.
I also remember an Independent coming second in a by-election for the Federal seat of North Sydney in late 2015. With this a safe seat for the Liberals, Labor skipped that by-election. But at a general election the following year, with Labor running this time, the second-placed Independent from 2015 lost support and finished well behind.
Voter dissatisfaction often puts Independents in Parliament at by-elections, especially when major parties don’t run. But Independents must really stand out to win over voters at election time. The lack of outstanding Independents lets the major parties keep power that they should really lose.